The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

An urgent desire for more policing


As I discuss in my new book, "The War on Cops," the Black Lives Matter movement has been a stunningly successful exercise in changing the topic. While the nation has been focused on the non-existent epidemic of racist killings by police, the routine drive-by shootings in urban areas are taking their usual toll, to no national notice.

In 2015, three children ages five and younger were killed in September alone in Cleveland; five children there were shot over the 2015 Fourth of July weekend. A seven-year-old boy was killed in Chicago that same Independence Day holiday by a bullet intended for his father. In November, a nine-year-old in Chicago was lured into an alley and killed by his father's gang enemies; the father of the murdered nine-year-old refused to cooperate with the police in identifying his son's killers.

In August last year, a nine-year-old girl was doing her homework on her mother's bed in Ferguson, Mo., when gunfire aimed at her house killed her. In Cincinnati in July 2015, a four-year-old girl was shot in the head and a six-year-old girl was left paralyzed and partially blind from two separate drive-by shootings.

A six-year-old boy was killed in a drive-by shooting on West Florissant Avenue in March in St. Louis, as protesters were again converging on the Ferguson Police Department to demand the resignation of the entire department.

Ten children under the age of 10 were killed in Baltimore in 2015.

On Father's Day this year in Chicago, a three-year-old boy was shot in the back and left paralyzed for life.

While the world can tell you who Michael Brown is, few people outside these children's immediate communities know their names. There have been no Black Lives Matter protests against their assailants.

Expect the death toll to rise further as officers continue to back off of discretionary policing under the relentless charge that they are racist. But the consequences of that fall-off in enforcement go beyond the loss of life. When officers retreat to a purely reactive form of policing, they ignore the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas who beg for surcease from public disorder.

Go to any police-community meeting in high crime areas and you will hear an urgent desire for more policing, not less. Above all, residents ask for the enforcement of public-order laws, known as "Broken Windows" policing, routinely denounced by academics and the media as race-based oppression. The following comments from a June 2015 police-community council meeting in the South Bronx are typical of those I have encountered again and again over the years:

"Oh, how lovely when we see the police!" an elderly woman from Hunts Point spontaneously exclaimed. "They are my friends."

During the public Q-and-A with the precinct's commander, residents complained repeatedly about large groups of youth hanging out on corners. "There's too much fighting," one woman said. "There was more than 100 kids the other day; they beat on a girl about 14 years old." Another man asked: "Why are they hanging out in crowds on the corners? No one does anything about it. Can't you arrest them for loitering?" A middle-aged man wondered: "Do truant officers exist anymore?" (Last night in St. Paul, someone in a group of more than 50 teens brawling in the middle of an intersection pepper-sprayed five officers in the face and chest; the officers were responding to a 911 complaint about the fight.)

Back in the South Bronx's 41st Precinct, the president of a local mentoring program begged for a police watchtower in his neighborhood, a plea he has been making for 10 years, he said. Whenever he hears gunfire, he runs toward the shooting, terrified that one of his three children has been struck.

The precinct's commanding officer promised that there would be "zero tolerance" for outdoor barbecuing, loud car stereos and other broken-windows offenses during the upcoming Puerto Rican Day parade. "With public drinking comes fighting, and knives and guns," she said, to widespread approbation.

Before the meeting, the superintendent and two residents of a subsidized senior-housing building complained among themselves about a fellow tenant who was allowing teens to use his apartment for drug dealing. "For this to be happening, it frightens me very much," one of the tenants said. "Drugs are very dangerous. The police should arrest those kids."

As for pedestrian stops, a middle-aged man told me: "I think they should put [stop, question and frisk] back. It was higher two years ago before [New York Mayor Bill de Blasio] took office. The criminals feel more comfortable now; it's easier to get their hands on a gun."

All of these requested police actions profoundly violate the received wisdom about policing among academics, the media and activists. A police watchtower? The very embodiment of the Panopticon and the Foucauldian surveillance state. Truancy arrests? They will produce racially disparate rates of school discipline. A crack-down on public drinking and illegal barbecuing? It would penalize poverty. Drug trafficking arrests? They usher in the New Jim Crow.

Yet these are the demands that the police hear every day from their inner-city constituents and that are virtually never recorded by the mainstream media. To ignore such pleas because the elites deem Broken Windows policing racist means denying the law-abiding poor desperately-desired surcease from disorder.

But if the 41st Precinct officers do respond to these heartfelt requests, the officers will generate precisely the racially skewed statistics that the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Obama Justice Department could use against the New York Police Department in a "racial profiling" lawsuit. Police are caught in a no-win situation between their nearly voiceless constituents and the highly-amplified activists and academics.

The rhetorical assault on law enforcement over the past two years goes beyond the police to encompass the entire criminal justice system. President Obama regularly claims that the disproportionate representation of blacks in prison is due to "biases, some conscious and unconscious that have to be rooted out … across our criminal justice system," as he charged just hours before police officers were assassinated in Dallas two weeks ago. Enforcement of drug laws is said to be an effort on the part of racist whites to virtually reenslave blacks; those racist drug laws are also allegedly responsible for the black incarceration rate.

Criminologists have spent decades trying to show that black overrepresentation in prison is due to criminal justice racism. They have reluctantly reached the same conclusion as Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen, who wrote in 1997, after reviewing the large sentencing literature: "large racial differences in criminal offending," not systemic bias, explain why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.

In 1986, it was members of the Congressional Black Caucus who demanded that Congress respond forcefully to the crack cocaine epidemic. Rep. Alton Waldon, from Queens, New York, called on his colleagues to act: "For those of us who are black this self-inflicted pain is the worst oppression we have known since slavery. … Let us … pledge to crack down on crack."

As for the claim that drug convictions drive the black incarceration rate, if all drug convicts were removed from the nation's prisons tomorrow, the share of black prisoners would drop from 37.4 percent to 37.2 percent.

Yet this constant refrain – from the president, as well as from Hillary Clinton and other politicians – that the criminal justice system is racist contributes further to the dangerous delegitimation of law enforcement authority. When people are repeatedly told that racist police officers are killing blacks at epidemic rates, when they are told that pedestrian and traffic stops are racist, when they hear that the entire criminal justice system is biased against blacks, we shouldn't be surprised at the eruption of racial violence targeting officers.

The Dallas and Baton Rouge assassinations were hardly the first time that police killers have been killed in the name of Black Lives Matter; in December 2014, an assassin gunned down two New York Police Department officers, inspired by Black Lives Matter ideology. Non-lethal assaults on officers are up and will continue if the incitement of hatred against cops continues.

This false narrative about a racist criminal-justice system is playing with fire, threatening to undermine law and order itself. Without question, police officers need to treat everyone they encounter with courtesy and respect and within the confines of the law. Sometimes officers fail in those duties; when those failures reach levels of criminal culpability, officers must be held accountable.

But there is no evidence of systemic bias against blacks among the police or the rest of the law enforcement system. It is long past time for our national leaders to start telling the truth about crime and policing before more black and blue lives are lost.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.